Living in Captivity
Dolphins living in captive conditions face circumstances vastly different than those of the ocean. Often they are placed in unfamiliar groupings, with dolphins that have come from different families, making communication between them impossible. Space is limited, which sparks aggression and frustration. The surroundings are bare and sterile, with little mental stimulation or diversion. Many captive dolphins are regularly treated with ulcer medication or antidepressant medication to alleviate the frustration of captivity.
When faced with an aggressor, dolphins in the wild can easily swim away to avoid an interaction. Instead captive dolphins often bear scars or rake marks, evidence of a clash with a tank mate. Prolonged confinement in such small quarters can lead to depression and self-harming behaviors. One of the earliest documented examples of such behavior was observed in Hugo, a captive orca at the Miami Seaquarium. Hugo was observed repeatedly smashing his head against his tank walls, a behavior that has been observed in other captive marine mammals, along with gnawing on tank walls and gates. On the opposite extreme, other captive dolphins may float listlessly at the surface of the water, a stereotypic behavior known as “logging,” or deliberately beach themselves on a platform or stage.
A Life of Training
Wild captured dolphins must endure significant training to adapt to captivity. They must learn to accept a new diet of dead fish, as well as to undergo a variety of invasive operations, such as
- Tubing – Dolphin is trained to accept the introduction of a tube into its stomach. If an animal is sick, it can be force-fed via this method.
- Presentation of flukes – Dolphin is trained to present its tail and remain motionless for blood draws.
However even captive-born dolphins must become accustomed to the human interactions required of them. This is accomplished, without exception, through food deprivation training.
Labeled as “positive reinforcement” or “operant conditioning”, dolphins are kept hungry enough so that they will comply with instructions from trainers, whether to learn new behaviors or to execute them during a performance of swim-with-dolphin encounter.